ALL THAT BREATHES Blu-ray Review: Sitting Gently With the End of the World

Shaunak Sen’s meditative documentary breaks with form to offer something more poetic.

Contributor; Toronto, Canada
ALL THAT BREATHES Blu-ray Review: Sitting Gently With the End of the World

One of the great, tragic flaws of the human race is locked up in our inability to think beyond our familiar scale of time; like the slow blades that slip the shields in Dune, gradual problems -- even if ultimately fatal -- are difficult for us to reckon with for their seeming lack of immediate urgency.

Now, staged against geologic time, even the timescales of the climate catastrophe are negligibly short. An Inconvenient Truth was released just 20 years ago, after all, and human science only began to point towards the damage we were doing to our ecosystem thirty years before that. For a human being, though, a 50-year apocalypse is simply too long-term to wrap one's mental arms around. And then the birds start falling out of the sky.

Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes, produced by HBO Documentary Films (and available on Max, or whatever Max will be called after the next shareholders' call) and released this week on Blu-ray by Janus Contemporaries, concerns itself with the micro-scale. It is not about the climate crisis as a whole or even overtly about the climate crisis at all; it's about two brothers, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, living in New Delhi, who operate a small not-for-profit called Wildlife Rescue, and care for injured black kites.

The black kites are the aforementioned birds that have been falling out of the sky: as the population and pollution balance of New Delhi crosses the tipping point into inhospitability, the birds are finding it harder and harder to stay alive. Saud informs us that kites are a "traditional bird" -- they are habit-bound and conservative, making them less able to adapt to the changing realities around them than other species.

It isn't the only time in the film that an animal species and the human species will seem notionally interchangeable. From its pinhole vantage point, All That Breathes muses on the larger questions of our symbiotic relationships with nature and with one another, and what it means to think we exist apart from the world around us and our responsibilities to it.

Sen eschews what I'd consider to be the nominal documentary approach to a subject like this. There is little overarching exposition to brief the audience or position the brothers' concerns within their world; the brothers do that themselves. There are no talking heads, and scenes (particularly interiors) are staged more like fiction than documentary, so much so that early sequences call the audience to question whether we are watching one or the other.

The sense of space is palpably rich: Wildlife Rescue is a subterranean operation, literally operating out of a dim basement, while its "patients" gambol freely in the skies above the city. One of the film's best visual and thematic tricks, deployed often, is to press the human world and the natural world together in frame -- whether it's a colony of rats making their night's meal with the city's commotion off in the distance behind them, or the frequent, vertigo-inducing shots of pinwheeling kites in an inverted sky, which we realize is reflected in water being filmed on the ground.

A blackout, in the midst of surgery upon one injured kite, is as tense as the early scenes become; but the brothers wear their worries -- about money, about the paths they've chosen in life, about one another -- on their faces and in their shoulders and in the quiet way in which they speak of themselves in the film's voiceover. We watch them pass the time together, talking about wrestling and the threat of nuclear war. Occasional interstitial news broadcasts chart the rise of anti-Islamic fascism in New Delhi. Both brothers are Muslim.

The film's placid overall sense works against it somewhat in the home viewing environment: I longed for the enveloping darkness of a movie theatre with surround sound and the mental discipline it enforces, during sequences that ask us to sit and simply witness the visual language of nature and humanity and reckon with why we "differentiate between all that breathes," as the brothers' late mother is described as putting it. Here, too, is a unique scale of time: a year of these brothers' lives condensed into 100 minutes that feel long and short at the same time, through the folding temporal mechanics of cinema. Maybe this is good practice.

The Blu-ray from Janus Contemporaries contains a single supplementary feature, a "Meet the Filmmakers" interview with Shaunak Sen. In the 17-minute chat, he discusses his cinematic approach to All That Breathes, and why he strongly resisted staging the brothers' tale using the language of non-fiction, referencing Herzog and Tarkovsky instead. The results of his work are undeniable.

Visit the official Criterion site for more information and to order your own copy.

All That Breathes

  • Shaunak Sen
  • Salik Rehman
  • Mohammad Saud
  • Nadeem Shehzad
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Shaunak SenSalik RehmanMohammad SaudNadeem ShehzadDocumentary

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